Matthew Pehl is Assistant Professor of History at Augustana University. This interview is based on his new book, The Making of Working-Class Religion (University of Illinois Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Making of Working-Class Religion?
MP: I wanted to think about the history of work, and working people, from a perspective that lent itself to ethical interpretations, so I gravitated toward the role of religion in working peoples’ lives. Though I hadn’t read his works yet, I realize now that my thinking was similar to David Brion Davis, who examined slavery as a moral problem that confounded an era otherwise characterized by enlightenment and democratization. Similarly, I felt that the dislocations of the industrial working class presented a moral conundrum to a post-slavery society otherwise (theoretically) committed to equality. In addition to this general interest, I knew that I wanted to tell my story from the bottom-up. The world already has many fine books about well-educated ministers and their promotion of a “social gospel,” but I was pretty sure that these books did not tell us very much about the way religion was actually practiced and expressed by working-class people. Fortunately, I was able to find some remarkably rich and revealing primary sources relating to workers in Detroit. It was the existence of this source base that led me to turn my project into a case study. And once I did, I realized that there was a third reason to write this book: finding “working class religion” in Detroit meant pushing beyond our usual markers of denomination, ethnicity, and race. My book is largely the story of people who belonged to three groups—Catholics, African American Protestants, and evangelical white Protestants from the rural South—who were sometimes ill-at-ease with each other, but whose collective experiences should lead readers to reflect on the ways in which class shapes our experiences of, and expectations for, religion.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Making of Working-Class Religion?
MP: Religious consciousness and class are more similar and deeply linked than is often acknowledged, because both are socially invented identities that develop historically and find expression in cultural forms. However, the relationship between these two potent forces is hardly stable or predictable. In 20th century Detroit, the intermingling of religious and class identities led to both a surge of liberal, racially pluralist labor activism and a vigorous conservative backlash against modernism and pluralism.
JF: Why do we need to read The Making of Working-Class Religion?
The best reason to read a history book is see the past—and thus the present—in a new way. I hope that readers come away with two ideas stuck in their head.
First, religion is a multiverse, not a universe. I think that far too much of the discourse surrounding religion tries to cope with the immensity of the subject by reducing it to simple categories: “conservative” or “progressive,” “moderate” or “radical,” even “socially good” or “socially bad.” This is surely understandable when striving for clarity, but it seems fundamentally false to me. The religion that I discerned operating among Detroit’s working classes was deeply ambivalent. What I mean is that their religion took multiple ideas, emotions, desires, customs, and beliefs—including many that seemed in direct tension with each other—and reconciled them into identities that looked outwardly paradoxical but seemed nevertheless to provide internal cohesion. Religion was meaningful to many of these people not because it was clear and simple, but because it was ambivalent and complex. Moreover, while working people inherited generations-worth of religious idioms and traditions, their religious consciousness was not simply handed to them from clerical leaders: workers were agents in shaping religion for themselves.
Second, I would like people to think about work in moral and ethical terms. Our public discourse insistently, and falsely, reduces work to the purely economic. Yet, we all know that work does far more than merely provide an income: it shapes our social identity and, for many, gives us a sense of purpose, direction, and responsibility. These broader effects of work give shape to families, communities, and ultimately our politics. Is it any wonder, then, that the recent flurry of scholarship and journalism on the pain of the modern American working class discloses fractured families, desolate communities, and an inchoate sense of rootlessness and anger? My books does not offer any policy prescriptions, to be sure, but I hope that it illustrates the deeply human need for work infused with meaning, and the social dangers that come from denying it.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MP: Like a lot of people, after I graduated from college, I felt myself at a crossroads, uncertain where to go or how to get there. While I was in this mental state, I randomly picked up a copy of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, an 800-page tome examining the assassination of Idaho ex-Governor Frank Stuenenberg and the subsequent trial of the Industrial Workers of the World leaders charged with the crime. I still don’t know what drew me to the book; it was totally unlike my usual reading material (which tended to me also anything but American history), yet reading it felt like a revelation. The idea that workers and employers in the U.S. had waged literal (if sporadic), decades long class war over issues of economic power startled me. Indeed, I immediately wondered why I was so ignorant of this history, and began to suspect that our collective “forgetting” of this past was not accidental. Big Trouble gave me a sense of rootedness, a concrete feeling that the world I inhabited actually came from somewhere and could be explained. Sparking this feeling remains my main goal as a teacher and writer.
JF: What is your next project?
MP: I am just completing a small-scale project that examines second-wave feminism on the northern plains during the 1970s. I have a number of ideas about where to go next, but honestly I have had a hard time committing to a single project. I’ll make up my mind soon, though.
JF: Thanks, Matthew!